When Gabriel Latner turned tables on the Israel-bashers

By JONNY PAUL
November 17, 2010 02:10

Canadian law student won Cambridge University student union debate for Israel... despite losing it.




GABRIEL LATNER addresses the Union debate

GABRIEL LATNER 311. (photo credit: Stephen Tordoff)

LONDON – When Cambridge University’s prestigious student debating society hosted a debate last month on the motion “Israel is a rogue state,” Israel’s supporters bleakly anticipated another hostile, demonizing and divisive event, and braced, too, for acceptance of the motion in the final vote.

But the motion was surprisingly and firmly defeated, with 74 percent of the votes opposing it.

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At the root of that thoroughly unexpected result was the extraordinary content of the speech delivered by one of the proposers of the motion – content that subsequently prompted students unsympathetic to Israel to protest the result and demand an apology from the Cambridge Union Society.

For Gabriel Latner, a 19-year-old, second-year law student from Toronto, advanced an argument in support of the motion that “Israel is a rogue state” that would have made any Israeli diplomat proud.

Proposing the motion was Lauren Booth, an arch anti- Israel activist and sister-in-law of the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, former prime minister Tony Blair. Booth recently converted to Islam after a religious experience on a visit to Iran.

Alongside her were Mark McDonald, founder of the group Labor Friends of Palestine, and Latner.

Opposing the motion were Ran Gidor, the Israeli Embassy’s counsellor for political affairs, Shiraz Maher, a former Islamic extremist, and and Paul Livingston, a third-year law student from Glasgow.

Since that remarkable October 21 night at the Cambridge Union Society, Latner has been celebrated by the pro- Israel camp, and vilified by the not so pro-Israel camp. His performance has been discussed heatedly on Facebook and on a range of blogs; he’s become a figure of interest on campuses; and he has been the focus on ongoing interest at the Union, which initially banned him for life for allegedly swearing at Booth at the event, then reinstated him after he apologized.

The young man himself says he has been somewhat shocked at the attention.

“The fact that a rough draft of my speech went viral surprised me, I really didn’t think anyone would care,” he told The Jerusalem Post this week. “I’ve been getting on average 15+ emails and Facebook messages a day since the debate – some positive, some not.

“I’ve been sent links to dozens of sites that carried the story and scanned copies of newspaper articles about it. I even got a call from family in Australia who read about it in their local paper. I’ve received notes from Cambridge Dons and MPs about this. I expected people in Cambridge might care, but no one outside the bubble."

So how did Latner, arguing that evening for the motion that “Israel is rogue state,” become a new hero for supporters of Israel, and a villain for the detractors? He had applied to the Cambridge Union Society, which had circulated a request for student volunteers to participate in the debate, with the offer to speak for either side, and was – rather to his surprise – invited to appear for the proposers of the motion.

He was not required to submit any of his content ahead of the event.

Latner, who said he comes from a Reconstructionist Jewish background and has been to Israel several times, including reportedly as an IDF volunteer, said he was galvanized by a strong desire to win – even though, as it turned out, “winning” on behalf of Israel meant his side losing the debate.

Describing himself as a “classical civil libertarian,” Latner set out his argument to show that Israel is indeed a “rogue state” – but in the very best sense of the term. And he did so, in a 10-minute address before the approximately 800-strong audience, by highlighting the anomalous nature of Israel.

He began as follows: “I’m tempted to do what my fellow speakers are going to do – simply rehash every bad thing the Israeli government has ever done in an attempt to satisfy those of you who agree with them.”

And indeed, he continued, “It would be so easy to twist the meaning and significance of international law to make Israel look like a criminal state. But that’s been done to death.

“It would be easier still to play to your sympathy,” he acknowledged, “with personalized stories of Palestinian suffering, and they can give very eloquent speeches on those issues. But the truth is that treating people badly, whether they’re your citizens or an occupied nation, does not make a state ‘rogue’. If it did, Canada, the US and Australia would all be rogue states based on how they treat their indigenous populations.

Britain’s treatment of the Irish would easily qualify [it] to wear this sobriquet. These arguments, while emotionally satisfying, lack intellectual rigor.”

If his direction was becoming visible at this point, Latner now made it explicit: “By the end of my speech,” he declared, “I will have presented five pro-Israel arguments that show Israel is, if not a ‘rogue state’ than at least ‘rogue-ish’. Let me be clear, I will not be arguing that Israel is ‘bad’. I will not be arguing that it doesn’t deserve to exist. I won’t be arguing that it behaves worse than every other country. I will only be arguing that Israel is ‘rogue’,” he said.

The speaker, having noted that the word “rogue” is actually “value-neutral” even though it has “come to have exceptionally damning connotations,” now highlighted the five promised areas to demonstrate the extent of that Israeli ‘rogue-ness’.

“The fact that Israel is a Jewish state alone makes it anomalous enough to be dubbed a rogue state,” was his first argument. After all, he had calculated, “the chance of any randomly chosen state being Jewish is 0.0051%.”

Next he showed how Israel’s treatment of Darfurian refugees is “anomalous.”

Asking why refugees from Darfur cross deserts to reach Israel, he continued: “Why would they take the risk? Because in Israel they are treated with compassion – they are treated as the refugees that they are – and perhaps Israel's cultural memory of genocide is to blame. The Israeli government has even gone so far as to grant several hundred Darfurian refugees citizenship. This alone sets Israel apart from the rest of the world.”

For his third argument, Latner suggested that Israel’s readiness to negotiate with terrorists complies emphatically with the dictionary definition of ‘rogue’ – “behaving in a way that is unexpected, or not normal.”

Sticking with the dictionary, he invoked the definition of “rogue” as “occurring at an unexpected place or time.” “When you compare Israel to its regional neighbors, it becomes clear just how roguish Israel is,” he exclaimed. “And here is the fourth argument: Israel has a better human rights record than any of its neighbors.

At no point in history has there ever been a liberal democratic state in the Middle East – except for Israel. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Israel is the only one where the LGBT community enjoys even a small measure of equality. In Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and Syria, homosexual conduct is punishable by flogging, imprisonment, or both. But homosexuals there get off pretty lightly compared to their counterparts in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who are put to death.

“Israeli homosexuals can adopt, openly serve in the army, enter civil unions and are protected by exceptionally strongly worded ant-discrimination legislation. Beats a death sentence,” he said. “In fact, it beats America.”

For his final argument, Latner pointed to Gidor, the Israeli diplomat, who was present as the lead speaker of the opposing side, arguing against the motion.

“Ran Gidor’s presence here is the all evidence any of us should need to confidently call Israel a rogue state,” he asserted.

“Consider, for a moment, what his presence here means. The Israeli government has signed off to allow one of their senior diplomatic representatives to participate in a debate on their very legitimacy. That’s remarkable.

“Do you think for a minute, that any other country would do the same?” he asked. “If the Yale University Debating Society were to have a debate where the motion was ‘This house believes Britain is a racist, totalitarian state that has done irrevocable harm to the peoples of the world,’ [do you think] that Britain would allow any of its officials to participate? No. Would China participate in a debate about the status of Taiwan? Never.

“And there is no chance in hell that an American government official would ever be permitted to argue in a debate concerning its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay,” he said.

Speaking to the Post this week, Latner stressed that “My speech wasn’t motivated by ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘anti-Palestinian’ sentiment.

I’m not an Islamophobe, even though some Islamophobes who read my speech think I am. I’m not a neo-conservative, even though critics of my speech think I am, as do some of my supporters. I’m all about freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom in general. I’m a civil libertarian, and a fan of democracy,” he said.

“The philosophical underpinning of my support for Israel, and for the Palestinians for that matter, isn’t based on my Jewishness or any historical arguments: I believe that each person has an innate right to self-determination, and national, cultural, regional or political groups have the right to exercise that personal autonomy as a collective.

"Zionism, as well as Palestinian national aspirations, is simply an expression of the underlying philosophical maxim that people are born free and that each of us has the right to plot our individual course through life,” he added.

In the aftermath of the debate, a group of student union societies – which included the Palestinian, Socialist Workers, Arab, Islam, Pakistan and Turkish societies – sent a letter of protest to Cambridge Union Society President James Counsell.

“How can the Union justify inviting a speaker who clearly lacks any credibility to speak on behalf of the proposition?” they asked in the letter. “Who was responsible for selecting Latner to be on the program? Undermining the fairness of debate in such a fashion can only have negative consequences for the reputation and credibility of the Union itself.”

Calling for an investigation, the signatories said: “Our issue is not with the outcome of the debate, but with the unprofessional manner in which the debate itself took place. The events which transpired undermined its credibility, and also that of the Union. As such a prestigious and renowned society, we are perturbed by the fact that the basic values that the Union stands for were not upheld. It shows a great deal of disrespect to Union members and the other speakers involved in this debacle.”

The signatories also called for “a full and unreserved public apology for the offence caused by sanctioning a debate that lacked the basic and necessary prerequisites of balance and fairness, and for the lack of respect that entails to the members of the Cambridge Union... In addition, we would like assurances that for future events an equal opportunity is given to the relevant societies in suggesting speakers that best represent their cause.”

But the Cambridge Union itself said it had received “no letters from any groups regarding the phrasing of the motion prior to the debate.”

It noted: “The Cambridge Union tries to spark interest amongst its membership by producing pithy motions, as is evident from other debates this term such as ‘Is Islam a Threat to the West,’ and ‘This House Hates Human Rights.’ However, the caliber of our guest speakers should dispel any notion that we seek to simplify extremely complex contemporary issues.”

Other students praised Latner’s speech and the event itself.

“I think Gabriel’s speech was really wellinformed,” the Union’s President-Elect Lauren Davidson told the independent student newspaper Varsity. “The Union exists to provide a platform for free speech, and so we don’t check speeches in advance. In almost all our debates, speakers from each side twist the motion and it’s usually thought very clever and funny.”

Davidson added, “The motion was not asking ‘Is this house pro or anti-Israel?’ It was asking whether Israel is a rogue state, which Gabriel argued exactly according to the motion. So, he was not arguing for the wrong side.”

Incidentally, Latner said he’s now running for the presidency of the Union.


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